When Christian E. Hansen took over Fritz Hansen & Co from his father, in 1899, at only 25 years old, the company was known to be a reliable manufacturer of quality furniture. Hansen built on that reputation, bringing in his training as both a joiner and an architect to collaborate with his fellow architects. This decision elevated the company’s reputation and secured its future as an internationally-renowned production house. Designer and architect partnerships are a practice that continues at Fritz Hansen today.
Hansen’s first collaboration began in 1905 with the accomplished Danish architect Martin Nyrop. Nyrop approached Fritz Hansen to manufacture furniture for the Copenhagen Town Hall, which he designed both in-side and out. Following this success, Fritz Hansen & Co collaborated with some of the most important Danish architects of the day, including Thorvald Jørgensen and Kai Gottlob. In addition, the company produced furniture for the Danish Parliament at Christiansborg Palace, the Frederiksberg Courthouse, and the Supreme Court, among others.
In 1910s, Fritz Hansen was the only Danish company producing steam-bent wood chairs. The impact of this production method for the company - and of Christian E. Hansen’s pursuit of it - cannot be overstated. It was Hansen’s visionary approach that brought about some of the most important production changes of the era. The steam-bent and laminate wood furniture was defining for Fritz Hansen, and would be essential for its most important collaborations.
Christian E. Hansen played a key role in the evolution of Fritz Hansen’s furniture production. By pursuing the industrial potential of his father’s craftsmanship legacy, he gained commissions from important contemporary buildings. Perhaps most importantly, he drove the company forward, using new methods and materials. This approach would reap rich rewards in the years to come.
Fritz Hansen was trained as a joiner and a cabinetmaker, but he was first and foremost a visionary.
In 1872, Fritz Hansen had just finished his apprenticeship and could call himself both a joiner and a cabinetmaker. At the tender age of 25, he had big plans for the future. He obtained a trade license and moved from the small Danish town of Nakskov to Copenhagen, where he set up a modest workshop.
Fritz Hansen was a true master of his craft, and from the very beginning he established a reputation for exquisite craftmanship and quality, which lives on today.
Both reputation and business grew, and in 1887 the premises grew too small. So Fritz Hansen bought a house in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighbourhood. With the added space there was also more room for his talent to flourish.
Fritz Hansen was known to be quick yet thorough in his work, but he was also innovative. For instance he redesigned the Victorian curved sofa on a thin steel frame, inspired by ladies’ crinolines. He made mirror frames and used a special woodturning method for staircase balusters, chairs, and sofa legs. His furniture grew very popular, and people from abroad travelled to Denmark to buy from Fritz Hansen.
By 1898, Fritz Hansen & Co had grown to 50 staff, and Christian E. Hansen, Fritz Hansen’s son, suggested moving part of the production out of town. A large plot was bought in the small town of Allerød, next to a forest and close to the railway. It was a perfect location considering that Fritz Hansen once again had big plans that included opening his own lumber mill. The company is still located in Allerød to this day.
While business continued to grow, Fritz Hansen’s health began to fail him. Shortly before the end of the century, he turned the company over to Christian, who was then 25 years old – just as his father had been when he had started out.
In 1932, Christian E. Hansen’s sons Poul and Søren Hansen became co-directors of Fritz Hansen. Poul was a trained cabinetmaker and Søren was a joiner. Both had already influenced Fritz Hansen with their enthusiasm for functionalism inspired by the Bauhaus School: an industrial design aesthetic they had seen while travelling Europe, but as-yet little known in Denmark. While Søren developed new products, Poul managed production. The brothers played an important role in the production of steel chairs in Denmark and in introducing functionalism to Danish design.
Working with renowned Danish architects, the Hansen brothers incorporated steel furniture techniques into steam-bent wood chairs. One of Poul and Søren Hansen’s key steel furniture collaborations was with brothers Flemming and Mogens Lassen. These designs were influenced by visionary Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe. While the Lassen brothers’ furniture was not as functional as van der Rohe’s, theirs paired cool steel with an inviting and warm Danish aesthetic that Bauhaus furniture often lacked. The Lassen brothers’ designs proved successful with Danish customers.
Frits Schlegel also designed steel furniture for Fritz Hansen. At the Den Permanente exhibition in Copenhagen, he presented an easy chair in steel and beech to an audience that included the Danish Crown Prince, Prime Minister, and Minister of Trade, as well as key players of the Danish design and manufacturing industry. In the press, the wood and steel design was called ‘a sensation’, with Fritz Hansen credited as introducing this method of furniture production to Denmark.
In the 1930s, Fritz Hansen first collaborated with architect Arne Jacobsen, including on Jacobsen’s expansive Bellevue and Bellavista project in Klampenborg, Denmark. Continuing their strong collaborations, Søren and Poul Hansen worked with designers such as Hans J. Wegner, Børge Mogensen, Ole Wanscher, Peder Moos, and Kay Fisker through the 1940s.
During the Second World War, a lamination technique was developed for British Mosquito airplanes. Fritz Hansen instantly saw the technique’s enormous potential in furniture. The company began working with laminated veneers, a technique that allowed wood to be thinly cut, then glued together in layers. In 1950, Fritz Hansen used this technique to produce the AX Series with architects Hvidt & Mølgaard. They introduced a knockdown version of the series, which marked the beginning of Fritz Hansen’s successful export business. The veneer technique used for the AX Series then played a key role in Fritz Hansen’s ability to produce iconic designs as Arne Jacobsen’s Ant™ and Series 7™ chairs.
The success of Arne Jacobsen’s furniture in the 1950s led to unprecedented success for the company. To this day, Jacobsen’s work remains a core part of Fritz Hansen’s identity. Søren and Poul forward-thinking partnerships and use of innovative materials such as steel and lamination ensured that Fritz Hansen entered the second half of the 20th century stronger than ever.
Early in the 20th century, the forward-thinking son of Fritz Hansen, Christian E. Hansen, began experimenting with a new production technique: steam-bending wood.
Industrially-produced steam-bent wood furniture had been manufactured at the German-Czech company Thonet-Mundus since the 1830s. By 1912, the company had an annual output of more than two million pieces, including the hugely successful No. 14 Vienna cafe chairs, designed in 1859. Much to the chagrin of Christian E. Hansen, the production method itself was a company secret. Hansen sought to uncover the mystery behind the technique.
In 1915, Fritz Hansen produced the first Danish chair using the technique, making them the sole Danish company to do so. The quality of production was so high, in fact, that Thonet-Mundus granted Fritz Hansen exclusive rights to produce the German-Czech’s company’s designs for the Scandinavian market. By the 1930s, Fritz Hansen’s technique was so refined that the company was among the world leaders in the field. This later evolved into the Fritz Hansen’s speciality: laminated wood furniture.
Around 1930, the first Danish-designed chairs in steam-bent beech wood, called the DAN Chair, were brought to market. Although clearly inspired by the work of Thonet, the chairs were distinctly Scandinavian with cleaner lines and a lighter, more functional expression.
Steam-bending wood is an economical and ecological production technique with a rich heritage. As it doesn’t rely on adhesives to bond wood pieces together, there by increasing the speed of manufacturing. Material wastage is also minimised as the wood can be precisely cut, removing the need for complex joints or other forms typically made from more expensive stocks of wood.
Christian E. Hansen’s pursuit of the steam-bending technique was game changing; not only for Fritz Hansen, but for the furniture industry at-large. The DAN Chair remains a highly important link in furniture production innovation, and for Danish design.